The Questionable Relevance of Petraeus

Ed Kilgore makes a good point here -- it's really not clear why the details of General Petraeus' presentation on the military state of play in Iraq matter at all. The question of the surge, and of the military presence more generally, is whether or not the presence is creating a situation where the presence will no longer be needed in order to avoid the Potentially Catastrophic Consequences of Withdrawal. As long as we have a situation where the day after we leave, the Catastrophic Consequences of Withdrawal will come to pass, then we may as well just leave tomorrow.

Obviously, though, the aspect of the situation in Iraq that makes the CCW frightening isn't the quantity of last week's car bombs, but rather the political conflict that led to the car-bombings. If violence declines simply because American troops are patrolling the country, then the troops need to patrol forever. If, by contrast, the decline in violence leads toward a resolution of the political conflict then it's a different story.

So the question of the surge is fundamentally outside of Petraeus' domain. And as hard as Ambassador Crocker tried to dodge the point (by for example, trying to relabel the total absence of central government control over the vast majority of the country as an experiment in federalism) the answer here is clearly no. We could, of course, just give it some more time. And then more time. And then yet more time. But by the same token, if we leave and some Catastrophic Consequences break out and then we give that more time, things will eventually calm down.

All of which is to say that there's no such thing as "military progress" that we can tally up next to absence of political progress and say, "eh, the glass is half full." The military exists to try to help accomplish political ends. If the military isn't succeeding in achieving those political ends, then it's not making progress, and our troops ought to be sent somewhere where they can do something useful.